For a meeting that nearly did not happen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent trip to China (and Myanmar) is high on the feel-good factor. Experts point out that more than the progress made on the multilateral platform of Brics, the biggest takeaway is the reiteration by India and China to work together.
Both sides knew what happened regarding Doklam, said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, adding that at Modi’s meeting with President Xi Jinping it was clear that both wanted to look ahead rather than over their shoulders at the tensions of the past.
So, Modi, who had used some choice terms for Pakistan (the mother ship of terrorists) during the Brics Goa summit of 2016, chose not to name China’s special friend by any name this time. China, on its part, agreed to name Jaish-e-Mohammed and Laskhar-e-Taiba along with the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (of militant Uighurs, who commit acts of terror in China), as outfits which cause security concerns in the region.
China, however, continues to block attempts at the United Nations to brand Masood Azhar, founder of JeM, a terrorist—a position that baffles India. India may feel that getting terror groups named is a minor victory, said M.V. Rappai, honorary fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. “But, it has to itself deal with terror within India,” he said. “We need to focus on that aspect.” The Modi-Xi bilateral went on for over an hour, though it was scheduled for just 30 minutes. The leaders discussed ways of preventing future Doklams, even as they agreed that differences were bound to crop up. They discussed possibilities of interaction of border security personnel, and the need to build trust.
Beyond the Modi-Xi optics, too, the relevance of Brics itself, which the west is always questioning, was reasserted with the group uniting against protectionism. “Brics is progressing, it has built institutions like the New Development Bank, and it will continue to be relevant into its golden decade,” said Alka Acharya, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She said Brics nations would provide the bulwark for a global economy, while the west remains in retreat. “The Xiamen declaration is impressive in functional areas of cooperation, in economic growth, climate change and security,” Acharya said. “Now the nations have to align their internal structures to facilitate these decisions. How effectively that is done is important for Brics.”
The four documents signed at Brics are on cooperation in economy and trade, innovation, the New Development Bank and a strategic framework for customs cooperation. Acharya said China’s proposal of a Brics plus would have to become a reality sooner or later. India invited almost all of south Asia for the Goa summit, holding it together with BIMSTEC. China invited five guest nations to Xiamen. “When you are talking of regional cooperation, you have to throw open membership at some point,” Acharya said.
The Myanmar visit has happened a little late on Modi’s agenda, say observers, given his neighbourhood first focus. Though he visited Myanmar in 2014 for an ASEAN meet, this is his first bilateral. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had earlier made a flying visit; Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw came for BIMSTEC last year, along with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The Doklam standoff was an eye-opener. No neighbour was willing to openly take our side,” said Acharya. “The government realised it needed to engage a lot more with each of them. We need to make it clear that we have enough engagements with them individually.” Also, given that Suu Kyi’s ruling party is not having its best public ratings, Modi’s visit was also a symbolic show of support to the pro-democracy initiative, she added.
The 11 MoUs signed with Myanmar are a clear indication of the direction in which India wants to take forward the relationship—strengthening their democratic institutes like the press council and election commission and working together for security and surveillance, specially maritime.
Modi visited Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb, and the Ananda Buddhist Temple in Bagan, which the Archaeological Survey of India has restored. He gifted Suu Kyi a reproduction of her research proposal submitted to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in 1986. These were symbolic of the cultural and people links between the two nations. However, even as the visit was on, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju made it clear that the 40,000 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar were illegal and would be deported. Clearly, every tie is messy, every relationship a work in progress.